Today’s article is in response to a question from a reader (via Ask Melissa!) about how to determine whether there is too much baggage in a relationship and if you should just cut your losses and move on. In my response, I provide guidance on whether love can really conquer all, how to deal with baggage (especially if you don’t like his ex or his ex’s family), and how to know whether your relationship has too much baggage than you can handle:
I am 10 years younger than him and single, never engaged or married with no children. He has been married and divorced twice now with two children, one from each marriage. His last wife he got pregnant after only a few months of dating (her sneaky idea) and so his parents being religious as well as him and wanting to do what was right told him to marry her. A few months later they were married and it all went downhill from there, she had already three children, one from a relationship, two from her last marriage and then now pregnant with her fourth child. He stayed in the relationship and tried to make it work for nine years for the kids.
One day he met me at his work, me seeing his ring knew he was off limits though I was attracted to him and he seemed nice and we had this pull towards each other, he has never cheated before and never talked to another woman in either of his marriages.
His first wife cheated on him and didn’t want to try and work it out but wanted a divorce, she kind of went off the rails and he has custody of his son. His second wife he has been miserable in the relationship right from before their daughter was born. He got my phone number off of some paperwork from his work place and messaged me. He said he has never done anything like this before but saw something in me and didn’t want this opportunity to pass him. He and his wife were already discussing to split or not.
After a few weeks of us talking and we saw each other a couple times he told her yes that he wanted a divorce. They separated and he slept on the couch, which he did most of their marriage anyways. Shortly after, I said yes to him to be in a relationship, thinking that I could handle his past and all his baggage. He was still in the house with his wife and family for a few months trying to sell the house and separate. I worked out of town for two weeks at a time so I was gone a lot.
For the next three months our relationship was kind of a secret, on his side only his parents knew about us. He then moved out with his son and told him about us. I basically moved in shortly after that since I was basically living out of a suitcase and out of town most of the time and when I was home, we were together, so it made sense. I believe it was maybe four months after that, not entirely sure, when he told everyone else, including his daughter.
Our relationship was like no other, just absolutely amazing, we fell in love so quickly and we’re talking about our future and marriage. He is like no one I have ever dated before, he is much older, divorced, has kids, religious, comes from a very unconventional family with an adopted brother, foster siblings, step siblings, half-brother…and I believed that I could handle it all that our love for each other could withstand anything else.
I am starting to think that it may not be enough and all his baggage is just too much for me as he was a part of that family for a decade and wants to have her kids in his life and to be whatever they want him to be, the oldest is now married with a baby and he says he is a grandpa to him.
I just don’t think being only 26 that I am able to deal with not only his two kids but also three others and a supposed grandchild as well as two ex’s (even though the first isn’t in the picture much, which is a relief). We live in a small city and I find us or myself running into his past a lot!
This is all so hard for me as his ex-wife wasn’t the best person and so I don’t want anything to do with her or her family including her children which look a lot like her. His children though take after him which is easier for me. He should be officially divorced right away and we were together for a year, we are taking time apart to try and figure out what it is we can and cannot live with.
I no longer was working out of town and he wanted me to move out because he felt like he was compromising on his beliefs with us living together before marriage and being intimate before marriage and also felt like he wasn’t giving his son enough attention with me always there.
When we first were seeing each other he never mentioned the other kids much and made it seem that they would no longer be in the picture or our future but now it’s like he has changed his mind and wants to be a part of their lives. With all of these other people from his past and other women he has to talk to I don’t like it. I wanted a fresh start for us, distance between his past and our future.
Should I just cut my losses and move on? The hard part is that it’s not us that don’t work, we love each other so much and get along so well it’s amazing, the only thing is his past and I’m not sure if I can handle it or want it in my life.
He and his ex-wife’s only talk when they need to such as the kids or the divorce but I still don’t like it. I have never been in a relationship where another woman let alone two were in his life.
Are these issues able to be overcome? How are we able to work through this? We both love each other and want to be together but are these issues too much? Am I just being attached to him? He is an amazing man like no other I have ever met, but is his baggage too much?
Should we try and figure things out and us be together? Or is his past, kids, and baggage all just too much for me to handle and him not able to live without or compromise on?
–Too Much Baggage
Dear Too Much Baggage,
Thanks so much for reaching out. I really feel your frustration and concern.
Know that it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed and at a loss for what to do in this situation. I had very similar feelings when I was dating the guy who’s now my husband, especially having never been married and having never been a parent.
I really struggled with trying to figure out whether this was the right relationship for me.
Can Love Conquer All?
First, I really want to acknowledge you for asking these hard questions and for your self-awareness.
Having some awareness of your beliefs, and reflecting on your experience is valuable, and it’s the first step to overcoming any beliefs that might be holding you back from the love life that you truly want.
Often, we go into a relationship with the best intentions thinking that any hardships will be overcome because we believe that “love will conquer all.”
Love for each other is a very important element of relationship success.
But love and attraction for each other is only part of the equation.
The other part is compatibility and readiness.
In addition to love and attraction, compatibility takes into account whether you can honor your life vision, as well as your relationship needs and relationship requirements, while in this relationship.
And relationship readiness is about being ready and available for the kind of relationship that you really want, that there isn’t anything in your life (or his) that could interfere with the success of the relationship.
When You Both Want to Step Back
I know it can be hard to take some time apart, especially having already lived together.
We worry that the relationship might not recover from time apart.
But I would argue that wanting to take it slow, wanting to think about things, is actually a good thing.
When we take it slow and reflect, we raise our awareness of what’s really going on for us and what we truly want.
And as a result, we tend to be much more intentional about our decisions.
And when we’re much more intentional about our decisions, we tend to make decisions that are more aligned with our long-term happiness and fulfillment.
Consciousness, even if it’s a bit painful, helps expand your view, which ultimately helps you get closer to what you really want.
Is It Love or Attachment?
I wrote an article on the difference between love and attachment that you might find helpful.
Basically, attachment comes from a sense of fear and sense of lack, while healthy love comes from a sense of wholeness.
We can become attached when we rely on someone else, something outside of our self, to make us feel happy and complete.
Healthy love really comes from relying on our inner resources to feel happy and complete, and then sharing in that experience with others.
Check out the article on the difference between love and attachment for a list of important questions to ask yourself to help you discern whether you’re in love or attachment.
When You Don’t Like His Ex or Her Family
You mentioned that his ex-wife “wasn’t the best person” and so you “don’t want anything to do with her.”
You don’t have to like his ex-wife or want to talk to her. You can choose not to associate or interact with her.
If she’s not friendly toward you or if she doesn’t want anything to do with you either, you can choose not to socialize with her.
But the truth is, by virtue of being the mother of this kids, she is going to be in his life because she is responsible for co-parenting with him (depending on their custody arrangement).
The thing to look out for is if she is truly interfering with your relationship with him or your relationship with his kids, like bad-mouthing you or him to the kids, or creating loyalty conflicts to where the kids feel like that have to choose between their mom and their dad, or directly harassing you or people you care about.
If his ex is actively interfering with your relationship, he needs to confront her on that and set boundaries.
And I would say that you would also have to consider his vision for the kind of relationship and family life that he wants.
We all have a vision for the kind of life and relationship that we want.
And if his vision is to be close to his ex’s kids and to have a family-oriented, friendly relationship with his ex-wife in which they spend a lot of family time together, likely with you included in that family time, then I would encourage you to think about whether you want to support him in that vision.
If it’s something that is intolerable to you, then this relationship might not be a good fit for you and him because you would be at odds with each other’s life vision, and then he wouldn’t feel happy and fulfilled in that area of his life and neither would you.
The ball is really in your court in terms of how you want to manage your emotions and your interactions with her, because your emotional reaction is actually your baggage, not his.
Dealing with Baggage
The truth is, we all have baggage.
Each one of us has a past.
And our past can often influence our emotions, reactions, and decisions that we have in the present.
For example, if you’ve only had bad experiences with ex-wives in your dating life, then that experience might color your perspective and interaction with ex-wives.
But what if you’ve only had wonderful experiences with ex-wives who were always friendly, open, and welcoming to you?
That experience might color how you view and interact with ex-wives today, as well.
But the fact that we all have a past is not a bad thing.
We all have past experiences in our lives that can trigger our present emotions and reactions.
So the issue is not our past and how much baggage we have, the issue is how we manage our triggers.
Your discomfort with the fact that he has “all of these other people from his past and other women he has to talk to” and your desire for a “fresh start” is your emotional reaction and perspective.
His interaction with the other women in his life, the mother of his kids and his family, are triggering something in you.
So I would really encourage you to take very close look at that is coming up for you.
We can often lessen the amount of fear in our life and relationships with CLARITY.
And clarity comes with self-awareness.
So I would encourage you to reflect on:
What is it about him being in contact with his ex that upsets you?
What does it mean to you to have “distance between his past and his future”?
What is it about “running into his past” that is troubling for you?
What is it about this situation that is making you feel jealous, threatened or insecure?
And have you experienced this in previous relationships?
What kind of future and relationship do you really want?
I run into my ex-husband’s family all the time.
His ex-wife lives ten blocks from us.
We go to ballgames with his former sister-in-law.
I see family photos of my husband and “his past” decorating the walls of his mother’s and sister’s house.
I’ll admit, at first it was weird and uncomfortable seeing pictures of him and his ex-wife together in his mother’s home.
But then I thought, why wouldn’t they be in his mother’s house? She’s the mother of her grandkids and she’s on good terms with her grandkids’ mom.
I had to own up to the fact that my emotional reaction was 100% me and my triggers.
We needn’t fear or feel threatened by the past.
It’s water under the bridge.
The past has already happened and there’s nothing we can do to change it.
But what we can change is our emotional reaction to the past.
That is 100% our choice and within our control.
I recently recorded a teleclass on dealing with baggage that you might find helpful.
You can download it for free from my dealing with baggage page.
Is It Too Much Baggage?
So is there such a thing as “too much baggage” in a relationship?
But here’s the thing: you get to decide what’s “too much” for you.
There’s no rubric out there that delineates what’s too much baggage, there are only the limits that you create.
So how do you decide for yourself whether he has “too much” baggage?
You decide by getting clear on your relationship vision, needs and relationship requirements.
Deciding whether or not something is “too much” or intolerable depends on what your dreams and your deal-breakers are.
So I would encourage you to think about:
What does a fulfilling life and relationship look like for you?
What are your dreams for your life?
What do you need in a relationship in order to feel loved and valued?
What do you need in a relationship in order for the relationship to work for you?
What are you non-negotiables or deal-breakers in a relationship?
Can this relationship let you live out your dreams and your vision for your life?
Does this relationship support your needs and relationship requirements?
If there are issues or conflicts in your relationship, this usually points to an unmet need or requirement.
And so you have to decide how you want to address those issues, whether you want to problem-solve the issues (which might mean even letting go of some needs if that is what you want to do) or actually leave the relationship.
Being in a relationship with single dad (and an ex-wife and an ex-family) takes every ounce of confidence to not to get caught up in jealousy or insecurity.
You need to have pretty high self-esteem and thick skin to succeed in this role because there will likely be a lot of circumstances that might trigger emotional reactions within you, and you would have to manage those reactions if you choose to stay in the relationship.
On the same note, it’s totally ok if you don’t want to put yourself through any of that.
Walking away is a choice you have, too.
But you ultimately have to decide: What makes staying in a relationship or leaving a relationship worth it to you?
You’re always empowered with choices.
And these choices are best made with your vision, needs and relationship requirements in mind.
I know these things take a lot of time and thought to consider, but I hope this helps provide some guidance!
Please feel free to reach out if you need any other support.
All the best,
Have a burning relationship question? Send me your question here.